Death-Row Inmate Seeks Organ Transplant

Sometimes crime can pay, even on death row, if you're in need of a new kidney.

Thanks to the state of Oregon, a law-abiding citizen in need of a kidney transplant may have to die so that death-row prisoner Horacio Alberto Reyes-Camarena can live.

Reyes-Camarena, 47, has been on Oregon's death row since 1996, when he was convicted of repeatedly stabbing 32- and 18-year-old sisters he met in a farm-labor camp. The older woman survived 17 stab wounds to testify against him.

Every year, as Reyes-Camarena appeals his conviction, Oregon — which is struggling through budget cuts and having a tough time providing a basic education for its children and health care for its poorer citizens — pays a reported $121,000 a year to keep Reyes-Camarena on dialysis. Last month, his prison doctor determined he was a good candidate for a kidney transplant.

With the state funding his medical care, Reyes-Camarena could be placed on a transplant waiting list ahead of others who did not commit any crimes and become the state's first death-row inmate to receive an organ transplant.That has outraged crime victim advocates, who cannot understand how the justice system can "reward" convicted murderers at the expense of innocent patients.

"There's no doubt — there's no debate — that people have lost their lives while murderers have received transplants," said Dudley Sharp, resource director of Justice For All, a Houston-based victims' rights group that supports the death penalty.

"It is unconscionable that we would put those who have not contributed anything to society but have cost society millions of dollars ahead of hardworking citizens that are not even on the list [for transplants] because they can't afford the insurance," Sharp said. "It's not fair and studies need to be done, and it's something our state legislatures need to think about."

Legal and Medical Conundrum

In 1976, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that prisoners were entitled to the same medical and dental treatment as everyone else in their community. Prisons that withhold necessary care from inmates can be held liable for violating constitutional bans against cruel and unusual punishment.

But critics have argued that efforts to ensure prisoner rights have compromised the lives of law-abiding taxpayers who are paying for inmates' medical bills. It has posed a conundrum for law enforcement officials, who must punish the convicted and ensure their care behind bars.

"We in Oregon provide very high level of health care for all our prisoners, whether they are on death row or not. We take better care of our prisoners than deserving poor people," said Joshua Marquis, district attorney for Oregon's Clatsop County.

"We really do have to provide for their [prisoners'] care; we are legally bound. So it's more of a moral issue than a legal one," he said. "Personally, I find it abhorrent that someone like Mr. Reyes-Camarena could receive a transplant before anybody who is more deserving."

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